How Can I Stop Being Afraid to Rock the Boat?

by Alli Polin on May 20, 2014

How can I stop being afraid to rock the boat?

In the early 90’s, I was two months into my first big post-college job working for a major consulting firm.  I was excitedly waiting for my first assignment and had recently finished my six week training and indoctrination program.  I was ready to travel, work hard and be the best darn change management consultant I could be, but one thing was missing.  I actually wasn’t prepared to go anywhere and do anything.  I knew of a project that was being staffed that didn’t align with my personal values and I was sick at the idea of playing staffing roulette with my silence.  I took a deep breath, told myself, “don’t be afraid to rock the boat,” and knocked on the Staffing Lead’s door to talk to her about my dilemma.

I refused to buy into the idea that new hires are supposed to stay quiet.  In the end, I was staffed on a first project in the financial services industry and not the tobacco industry.  I was relieved that my courage created a positive outcome and I doubled down on my passion for my work and loyalty to my organization.

Wondering how you can take a chance and speak up for your needs?

Don’t be afraid to rock the boat.  Follow this approach to start rockin’ when it matters most. 

Express enthusiasm.

Rocking the boat does not mean that you’re unhappy to be there.  In my staffing situation, I expressed my excitement for the challenges ahead, for the work and the organization because it was all genuine.  Be brave and let your enthusiasm shine through; it’s positive, contagious and brings connection.

Remain professional.

Lose the temptation to hand over the wheel to your emotions.  Stay focused on what you want to express and why it matters to make the impact you want with intention instead of by chance.  Tears and raised voices make it hard to hear your message through the histrionics.

Emphasize flexibility.

Having a new idea, approach, request or suggestion doesn’t require you to reign in control of absolutely everything.  In fact, marrying flexibility to “your ask” may increase your chance of getting what you truly want.  I asked to not be staffed in the tobacco industry, yet I emphasized I would fly anywhere, work in any other industry and do any work required.

Boldly say it and own it.

It’s tempting to dance around a request or bury it under ass-kissing when you’re afraid of rocking the boat.  Stop mulling over silly thoughts that people will think you are too demanding, crazy or annoying.  Be clear, bold, say it and own it to ensure that when you walk away, there is no confusion and people understand your request or suggestion.

Honor values.

Know why you’re speaking up instead of staying silent.  Some people constantly speak up because they just can’t stop themselves while others speak up because any other choice would not be honoring their values or leadership.  One feels disrespectful and ego-centric and the other is values-centric.  Which leader do you want to be?

Rock when it matters and roll when it does not. 

Willy nilly requests and suggestions turns down the volume on your personal leadership and influence.  Maximize your impact and the likelihood that you’ll influence the outcome by picking and choosing vs. constant rocking.

Never be afraid to rock the boat when it matters. 

To you.
To your team.
To shared success.

[Tweet “Change starts when one person chooses courage over silence.”]

Break the Frame Action:

Split a piece of paper into two columns, write Speak Up at the top of one and Stay Silent at the top of the other. Ask yourself the questions below and don’t censure your responses.  Write down whatever comes up whether it is from your head or your heart.

What’s the worst that can happen if you speak up?
What’s the worst that can happen if you stay silent?

The answer’s in there.  I promise.

When was the last time you stopped being afraid to rock the boat and asked for what you need, even when it felt like a big leap? What did you learn?

For coaching, consulting or speaking Let’s Connect!


{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Carl May 20, 2014 at 6:22 am

Alli, great post –
I’m glad you learned that valuable lesson, and are still speaking up! 🙂

Best regards,


Alli Polin May 20, 2014 at 6:40 am

Thanks, Carl! I’m glad too! Was great to look back all these years later to distill and dissect the experience.

~ Alli


Terri Klass May 20, 2014 at 7:38 am

An electric post, Alli, making me think up the power of not being afraid to speak up!

In my consulting with clients, I am often tempted to “go with the flow” when things are working fairly well. But sometimes it takes such “will power” to tell the truth which is really what they need me to do.

I am at a point right now with one client that I must do exactly what you challenge us to do today. I will let you know how it turns out.



Alli Polin May 20, 2014 at 8:01 am

I’m glad that this was timely for you, Terri! I started writing this because I was telling myself stories about why I can’t rock the boat but in truth, it’s about how and why that shifts the impact from demanding to win-win.

Many thanks!


David Allen Spell May 20, 2014 at 9:03 am

Great and encouraging post! Thanks!


Alli Polin May 20, 2014 at 9:47 am

Thanks for your feedback, David! Greatly appreciate it!


Chery Gegelman May 20, 2014 at 9:17 am

Alli – I love, love, love this post! Great story and simple actionable steps.

This was my favorite part, “Know why you’re speaking up instead of staying silent. Some people constantly speak up because they just can’t stop themselves while others speak up because any other choice would not be honoring their values or leadership.”


Alli Polin May 20, 2014 at 9:39 am

Thanks, Chery! Your feedback means a lot to me! Values often show us the way…

Appreciate you!


Tom Rhodes May 20, 2014 at 9:23 am

A post I wish I had read 4 years ago before I rocked the boat to hard. I learned it is about what battles to fight and what battles to let go. The two lists is a great idea. You can’t rock every boat and you can’t be silent every time.
It’s about good choices.


Alli Polin May 20, 2014 at 9:41 am

I still have a hard time leaving battles that I want to fight but really shouldn’t. It’s tough to always get it right but thinking things through before rocking can make a huge difference. Even I’ve been known to back off a time or two 😉

Thank you for sharing your truth. I really do learn from you.


LaRae Quy May 20, 2014 at 11:40 am

I love your action point, Alli!

There is a time to speak up, and there is a time to remain silent…wisdom is really knowing and recognizing the difference between the two. Too often, we speak up when prompted by our ego and not our brain!

Great article!


Alli Polin May 22, 2014 at 3:31 am

Ego does seem to have our lips moving faster than our brains would suggest! Thinking through our approach before making our request or suggestion can not only improve its reception but also tell others a lot about our personal leadership.

Thanks, LaRae!


Samantha Hall May 20, 2014 at 4:26 pm

Excellent post Alli.

I used to be afraid to rock the boat. Really afraid. Then, when the occupation I held at the time required me to protect the lives of others instead of my own, it was easier for me to value their lives more then my own. I couldn’t NOT speak up and rock the boat when it came to my patients in nursing.

As I was reading your post, that difference stood out for me in my own journey with learning how to speak up and rock the boat. To this day it can be more challenging for me (even if no one else knows it or can see it) to speak up on my own behalf then it is to speak up and rock the boat for others.

Now, as you are more then well aware (grins) I’ve learned to both speak up and rock the boat on issues that are important to me. However, I occasionally have to swallow the lump in my throat because I’ve also experienced the rejection that comes with saying what needs to be said. Granted, I don’t always say things in the best way in the heat of the moment. One thing I can say, I’m always willing to try. I’m willing to try and listen to another person. I’m willing to try and hear their side of the story. I’m willing to test and questions my own assumptions in order to resolve things with others….IF, I’m given the opportunity. Open minds and hearts are no guarantee in the world, as you already know.

Great post Alli. And I’m glad you found the courage in your early years to speak up about your values and what mattered most to you. And I loved how you still helped create a win/win. You didn’t want to work in the tobacco industry but you weren’t slamming the door on other areas.

Thanks Alli. xo


Alli Polin May 22, 2014 at 3:36 am


Thank you for such a power packed comment! There are times when speaking up and rocking the boat isn’t even an option – like when another human being’s life is at stake. Questioning someone else’s expertise is another choice entirely.

Even now I find that I’ll back off of most things but when I’m really invested, I go for it. We only have so much energy and putting it on the right things really helps!

Sadly, open minds and hearts are not always as open as they may appear at first blush. I think you and I and probably many others have run into that. After the shock wears off, and we dust off, it can definitely bring reluctance to take the same approach again – even with someone new.

Appreciate that you comment has me thinking and making some connections. Pretty awesome. Thanks!


Jon Mertz May 21, 2014 at 7:39 am


Maintaining our core values as we “rock” or “roll” is essential. Your diagram points this out very well. Humility and maintaining respect ensure we maintain our credibility through the changes we instigate or the status quo we maintain. Well done (again)!



Alli Polin May 22, 2014 at 3:37 am

Our values are pretty good at pointing us when we stop long enough to listen before we act. Instigating change never has a sure outcome but the truth is neither does the status quo.

Many thanks for your always thoughtful comment!


Kelli May 21, 2014 at 8:56 pm

Hi Alli
This was an excellent post and I think it will inspire lots of people to ‘rock the boat.’ Like you said, it does not necessarily suggest you are unhappy with the job overall, but just have some suggestions on how things can be better. As a freelance writer, I no longer have the issue of dealing with co-workers, bosses,etc..but I think what you discuss here is definitely applicable to lots of situations, not just a work one. Great stuff!


Alli Polin May 22, 2014 at 3:40 am

Big welcome to you! 🙂

Suggestions to make things even better are often misinterpreted as dissatisfaction but it doesn’t have to be that way!

Also- I totally agree that this applies in many situations and I’m glad it works for you too.

A sincere thanks for your comment!


John Bennett May 23, 2014 at 11:50 am

Kelli –

I’m always curious when “solo” career people say they have the advantage of working without co-workers, bosses, … Technically that’s true of course, but not really correct as I see it. For example, in freelance writing, you deal with publishers to get your work placed in print, with editors that (hopefully) work together with you on pieces, with agencies that represent your work, with suppliers and maintenance people who make your writing possible, … As Keith Sawyer writes in his book, “Group Genius,” no one really works alone. I’d suggest, relative to Alli’s post, for instance, there are instances when “rocking the boat” might be appropriate with your “team.”


Alli Polin May 25, 2014 at 9:28 pm


I agree – I’m a solo practitioner at the moment but I most definitely have a team even if we’re not all on the same org chart. We all have opportunities to raise the bar even in non-traditional ways and relationships.

Thanks for that great addition!


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